Of all South American cities, there is something especially unique and quirky about the chaotic La Paz and its sister city El Alto. Spread along a high altitude Andean valley, on the surface of it La Paz is a chaotic, polluted metropolis with a patchy safety record. But as you get to know it you soon realise just how many unusual sights and experiences Bolivia’s largest city has to offer. It’s a city of contrasts, colours, stunning views and a special indigenous imprint that will be sure to leave a lasting impression on you.

So don’t treat La Paz as an overnight transfer point on your way to or from Uyuni Salt Flats – give the city and the surrounding region at least a few days and you won’t regret it. This La Paz travel guide offers my favourite and most interesting places and experiences you can enjoy in La Paz and El Alto as well as some of the best day trips in the region.

 

Things to do in La Paz

Cable car your way around La Paz

La Paz Cable Cars

By far and away the best way to get around La Paz and its upper neighbour El Alto is also the most picturesque and relaxing. Despite its chaotic traffic and poverty, the city surely has the most advanced and far-reaching cable car network  in the world with 26 stations across 9 separate cable car lines. Known as Mi Teleferico, the cable cars will take you over the many barrios of La Paz, through highrise-lined streets of the commercial district, over cliffs and Bolivian cemeteries resembling tower blocks. 

Buying a day pass, there is no limit on how many lines you take and I found myself spending a long time travelling over the city from above, taking a rest from the traffic and pollution below. I really recommend taking all of the lines to get a fantastic overview of the city. And then descending down to explore the neighbourhoods you want to explore more (but first check they aren’t too dodgy to wander on your own).

The La Paz Witches’ Market

Llama Foetus in Witches Market, La Paz

Lating American cities are brimming with lively markets, but you’ll rarely come across one as unusual as the Witches’ Market of La Paz. Amongst artisanal trinkets of varying authenticity you’ll find traditional Aymara remedies, potions and spells for every life occasion. If you’re building a new house, consider buying a llama foetus and burying it under the foundations for luck and protection (according to Aymara traditions). Or if you made enemies, get a box of pre-made spells to get back at them. Besides a disturbing variety of dried dead things you’ll find amulets and 

Mercado de las Brujas is very centrally located and relatively safe to walk (ideally in a group) so long as you’re wary of pickpockets.

Plaza Murillo

Backward Clock at Plaza Murillo, La Paz

In the heart of La Paz is the city’s main square and a place of history. Facing the Government Palace, at different times the square was witness to angry mob, political overthrows and even a public hanging of an unpopular president. Nowadays, it’s a lively, peaceful plaza surrounded by lavish buildings that’s a popular meeting point both for locals and tourists.

At the top of the House of Congress that also faces the square is a peculiar sight: a clock that runs backwards. The public timepiece was changed to run backwards back in 2014, a curious political attempt to identify more closely with the country’s indigenous roots. According to Quechua and Aymara beliefs, the past is actually ahead of the future hence the clock should run backwards to reflect this. The idea was supposed to spread across the rest of the country, but following mixed reactions and plenty of confusion it remains the only unorthodox clock in Bolivia.

Many walking tours also start from here, and I recommend taking one on your first day to get a good sense of the city.

Calle Jaén

Calle Jaen, La Paz

The colourful Calle Jaén in the heart of the Old Town is probably the city’s most colonial and picturesque. Houses of red, yellow, green and blue hues line this pedestrian street that’s also home to a number of small museum galleries. Calle Jaén makes for a welcome haven away from the smelly, traffic-heavy roads of La Paz and the buzzing markets. It’s also worth popping into one of the numerous cosy cafes and bars plying their trade on this street.

La Paz Cemetery

La Paz Cementerio

First seeing it from the cable cars above, they more resemble Soviet-style tower blocks or chicken coops than a cemetery. 

The La Paz Cemetery is explained by the traditional burial methods in Bolivia and other Latin American countries. The 4-storey blocks containing hundreds of doors, each an individual crypt. Bodies are first placed in these rented crypts for up to 10 years as families pay visits before the bodies are cremated. 

How to get to La Paz Cemetery: It’s the Ajayuni cable car stop on the red line that goes up to El Alto. A word of warning that the area surrounding the cemetery isn’t the safest, so come during the day in a group or with a local guide.

Chualluma Barrio

Chualluma Barrio, La Paz

With its colourful murals, Chualluma is a hilly neighbourhood recently transformed from an indistinct poor district to one of the most interesting and eye-catching neighbourhoods in La Paz if not all of Bolivia. Following  a state-sponsored social art project, the formerly adobe-coloured walls now adorn bright geometric shapes and artistic murals depicting traditional Aymara women.

How to get to Chualluma Barrio

Like much of La Paz, Chualluma is easily seen from up above in the cable cars. The red Teleferico line up to El Alto gives you great bird-eye views of the colourful neighbourhood. If you want a more intimate experience on the ground, it’s best to get a taxi or hire a guide as the area is apparently not the safest. And it takes a lot of climbing if you want to walk from the centre.

Things to do in El Alto

The less-developed twin city on a plateau above La Paz has plenty of hidden gems of its own to explore. Thanks to the cable car network, El Alto is easily accessible from central La Paz where you’ll probably be staying.

Wiphala Housing Project

Wiphala Housing Project, EL Alto

Is there such a thing as fascinating tower blocks? In Bolivia’s El Alto there very much is. The delightfully colourful Wiphala Housing Project on the outskirts of El Alto was built in 2016 to settle indigenous communities into modern housing. But it’s also an artistic marvel with detailed Aymara mural facades representing indigenous Andean culture. 

A masterpiece by the locally famous painter Roberto Mamani Mamani, it’s worth the trip out here to enjoy the unique sight. You might even catch a quick glimpse of the estate while landing in the nearby El Alto Airport. Curiously, at the time of visiting the buildings were still mostly empty at the time, the project considered a failure. It’s no wonder as there’s seemingly no infrastructure around the new development.

Seeing Wiphala homes really made me ponder what the endless seas of anonymous grey Soviet-era blocks might have looked like had Mamani Mamani been involved.

How to get to Wiphala Housing Project: With very little else around, your best bet is to hire a taxi or a local guide to take you here for a quick stop as part of a day tour in El Alto.

 

New Andean Cholets of El Alto

Transformer Cholet, El Alto

The chaotic and once indistinct El Alto has developed its distinct colourful personality in recent years with the rise of New Andean style of architecture. Originally started by the famous Bolivian architect Freddy Mamani (not related to Mamani Mamani above), the colourful and often extravagant buildings known as cholets are a nod to ancient local architecture and motifs. Yet before long other architects took on the New Andean style, giving rise to extremely creative cholets that include some that resemble transformers.

Now there are over 70 such cholets scattered across the plateau city. The peculiar mansions are usually rented out as ballrooms for special occasions and look just as impressive and colourful on the interior. It’s possible to get a tour of some of these interiors through a local guide.

El Alto cholet interior

How to see the cholets of El Alto: Cable car is the easiest way to enjoy the facades. Take the red line up from La Paz centre then enjoy the sights on the Blue Line (Linea Azul). To enjoy the inside, book a tour with a local guide who’ll arrange a visit when they’re not in use for an event.

Cholita Wrestling

Cholita Graffiti, La Paz

A Bolivian version of Mexican Lucha Libre with a unique twist, Cholita wrestling is one of the more unusual sights to enjoy in La Paz. Rather than spandex-dressed men, the Cholitas are petite indigenous women wearing signature bowler hats and dresses that look like they time-travelled from the early 20th century. Once heavily discriminated against, they now represent Bolivia’s culture – even on a wrestling ring.

Nowadays, there are multiple venues mostly up in El Alto where you can witness Cholitas wrestle. To say it’s slightly bizarre is to say nothing at all, but it’s definitely entertaining.

Organised visits can save you the hassle of transport and sorting tickets, and there are a few tour providers offering this experience. The events are usually on Sundays and Thursdays.

Best Day Trips from La Paz

Chacaltaya Hike

Chacaltaya Lakes

How do you like the idea of climbing up to 5,421m past an abandoned Bolivian ski resort, all in a half-day trip from La Paz? 

Part of the Bolivian Andes, the Chacaltaya peak might seem disturbingly hard to conquer, but it’s actually a fairly short and moderate hike. Transport will get you close to the peak to what was the world’s highest ski resort. Alas, the snow is mostly gone (I had scraped just enough to make a snowball), but the breathtaking views remain. On your way up, scenery of the Cordillera Real mountain range really opens up along with the surreal red, green and blue mineral lakes down below. 

What is normally a short walk up takes about an hour depending on your fitness. It’s not technically challenging (the scariest part is the drive to get there), but given the high altitude you’ll find yourself stopping often to take long, deep breaths. And to take in the views. I recommend spending a couple days adapting to La Paz altitude before doing the hike and getting some coca leaves to open up your arteries.

As you’d imagine it also gets cold and windy up on Chacaltaya to make sure to bring plenty of warm clothes. It was a ski resort after all.

Chacaltaya Abandoned Ski Resort

How to get to Chacaltaya

Book a half-day tour with a reputable company in La Paz – I used HanaqPachaTravel and can vouch for them. It takes around 1½ hours each way and I’ll admit, it’s a hair-raising ride as the van gets closer to the peak. 

Walking Valle de la Luna

La Paz Moon Valley

Known as the valley of the moon due to its un-Earthlike scenery, the Valle de la Luna was apparently given the name by the astronaut Neil Armstrong on a visit. Located on the outskirts of La Paz as the city keeps spreading, it makes for an easy half-day activity. 

The ever-changing valley is formed of clay and sandstone stalagmites, ever-changing as weather breaks them down. You can follow the trails through these carpets of stalagmites, taking in the surreal views reminiscent of Turkey’s Cappadocia. In total the walk through the spires takes around an hour. Be careful of the narrow paths as the ground is unstable in places and health & safety isn’t a known thing in Bolivia.

How to get to Valle de la Luna

There are a number of buses that will get you there from central La Paz, although taxis from the centre are very affordable. You could take a half-day tour as well but it’s essentially just costlier arranged transport as there isn’t much to explain.

Cycling the Death Road

Cycling the Death Road, Bolivia

If you fancy a mild dose of adrenaline, why not ride the world’s allegedly most dangerous road on a mountain bike? The idea of going downhill on a twisting dirt road with deadly cliff drops on one side might not sound appealing, but when you book with a reputable tour company the experience is actually pretty safe. And being largely downhill, it’s not exactly tough either. 

The day tours pick you up early in La Paz, starting high up at 4,700m then gradually making your way down through waterfalls and past streams into the warmer jungle. The views are naturally jaw-dropping, just don’t get too distracted as you descend on the corners. It’s a 3,500m descent over 64km and by the end your hands might be sore from all the braking. But being one of the most memorable outdoor experiences out there, it’s absolutely worth it.

Tours can be arranged with a number of companies, but I recommend going for the more pricey reputable ones as of all places, it’s here that you want to be sure you have the best equipment and most qualified guides.


Know before you visit La Paz

Is La Paz safe?

This is a very popular question asked about the city. The short answer is it depends. Most of the very centre including the Old Town during the day is safe so long as you watch your valuables, and so are the cable cars. For some other areas like much of El Alto or the neighbourhood around La Paz cemetery, you’d be wise to walk in a group or with a local guide. Walking alone, usually nothing happens, but it’s only safe until it isn’t.

But don’t be put off visiting La Paz if you heard in the press it’s a dangerous city – if you follow the above suggestions and don’t act stupid you should be just fine.

Getting around La Paz

Cable cars are definitely the best way to get around La Paz and El Alto. They’re quickest, safest, most picturesque and avoid the worst air pollution on the roads below. Taxis are cheap and widely available, but be sure to either negotiate with the driver beforehand or get your hotel/hostel to book you one in advance. Be aware that traffic jams are a common sight and the roads stink.

For a more exotic local experience, you can hop onto one of the green or blue “Lechugas” (old-school buses nicknamed lettuce for the resemblance). They are essentially Bolivian collectivo vans dropping off and picking up locals on demand.

The city centre is best enjoyed by foot as it’s relatively compact.

Lechuga Transport in El Alto

What’s the best time to visit La Paz

Bolivia enjoys a colder dry season from May to October and a warmer wet season from November to April. My recommendation is to come either side of the peak dry season, so May or October to Mid-November when temperatures aren’t at their coldest but the rains are infrequent. 

If you want to specifically see the Uyuni Salt Flats flooded as part of your Bolivian trip, come in the winter wet season but beware that weather-related disruption is also more likely. Hiking and cycling will also prove more difficult to plan.

La Paz Altitude Sickness

Beware that La Paz is very high up at 3,600m, more so than for instance most Peruvian cities. If you arrive there as your first destination, chances are that you’ll feel rough for a couple days from the shorter supply of oxygen. If doing a longer trip, it helps to build up by staying at 2,000m or 2,500m altitude if you can. And buy coca leaves, it’s legal here and genuinely helps more than anything else.

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